Home » Exhibit Design » Interactives

Category: Interactives

Conquering the Panda Challenge

Sometimes developing exhibits can feel like a maze, with many different directions to explore and challenges to overcome. Recently, Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) was asked to build a real maze for the Panda House at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZP). The purpose of the interactive is for visitors to guide a panda through the bamboo forests of China, avoiding problem areas, such as fragmented habitat, construction, and deforestation. The maze is intended to show visitors of all ages the rapidly growing challenges that pandas face every day when traveling through bamboo forests seeking food, shelter, and looking for a mate.


Zoo sign and flower bed at the entrance to Smithsonian's National Zoo
Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Courtesy of Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo


Since SIE fabricator Enrique Dominguez had worked on a similar project in a previous job, it was decided that his experience would make for smooth development on this project. Starting with the design, Enrique created drawings on a computer platform that allowed him to make changes and flesh out details quickly. Then the team needed to figure out where the “positive” and “negative” areas of the maze would be. Enrique designed the maze so that the ball would keep rolling freely down the green pathways, but visitors would have to turn the wheel completely to release the ball when it got stuck in the problem areas. This design avoids the issue of having to reset the maze before each use.

Enrique created a cardboard cutout of the wheel with all of its graphics to show the Zoo the concept and scale. Then he created a maze pattern, which he 3D routed so that it could be held and played to resemble how the finished maze would actually look and feel.


Wooden structure with a wheel at the center containing a maze
The prototype for the panda maze


A close-up of the maze, showing details of the graphic, including bamboo leaves, tractors, cars, and construction signs
The prototype of the maze included placeholder graphics depicting hazards, such as deforestation, roads, construction, and farming, which the panda must avoid to reach the bamboo forest.


When selecting materials, Enrique wanted to keep handles to a minimum, so that kids playing with the maze could not hold on and hang from the exhibit. By using short, rounded handles and placing a bearing on the back of the wheel, the maze essentially has a brake to stop it from spinning on and on. Finally, after getting the client’s approval, the final prototype was built and its durability was put to the test when a number of children played with it.

Following the rapid prototyping phase, SIE and NZP met with Beth Ziebarth, Director of Access Smithsonian, who tested the interactive to make sure that it met all standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and was accessible for all individuals.


A group of four people surround the Panda Maze prototype. Three are standing and one is in a wheelchair.
SIE, NZP, and Beth Ziebarth, Director of Access Smithsonian, test the interactive.


The next step will be to fabricate and install the interactive at the Zoo’s Panda House. The maze will be built by SIE’s fabrication experts to withstand wear and tear from interaction for years to come. Look for the final maze at the Zoo later this fall.

OEC at the Staff Picnic in Rain and Shine

Undeterred by intermittent showers, OEC staff shared their work with the greater Smithsonian
community. It was a chance to connect with other exhibit and museum
professionals. Even the Secretary stopped by to say hi.


SI picnic Image 1

The OEC Model Shop showcased the ability of its 3D scanning and printing technology with a range of
3D-printed models.


SI picnic Image 2

OEC brought an assortment of low-tech interactive exhibits to talk about exhibition design and fabrication. The mailbox in the foreground allowed visitors to read historic postcards for the exhibit Mail Call.



SI picnic Image 3

The OEC Graphics Shop featured the capabilities of its direct-to-surface printer, which can print on a wide variety of substrates, including acrylic, metal, corrugated plastic, MDF panel, and seat cushion (all pictured).


SI picnic Image 4

Jia-Sun Tsang, of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, discusses the green conservation-grade exhibit cases that were developed in partnership with OEC.


Secretary Clough Comes to OEC

Secretary Wayne Clough paid a visit to OEC last week to view the production process of the latest Museum on Main Street exhibit: The Way We Worked.  The exhibit was developed by MoMS and is based on a collection of photographs from the National Archives. The Way We Worked takes a close look at the important role work plays in American lives and how our workforce has changed over time.  Five copies of the exhibit were produced at OEC and began shipping out to small towns across America at the end of August.

Being from a small town himself, the Secretary spoke about how important cultural programing like traveling exhibitions are for rural Americans. He also mentioned how impressed he was with OEC’s handiwork. It was a pleasure to share our work with the Secretary and an exciting way to wrap up the production of another terrific MoMS exhibit. 


Robbie Davis of MoMS assembles TWWW in preparation for the Secretary's visit. 

Secretary Clough viewing TWWW.


Secretary Clough poses for a photo at the entrance of TWWW.


Secretary Clough talking with modelmakers Jon Zastrow and Danny Feilding about the fabrication process of TWWW. 

Moving Beyond Earth

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) recently opened a new gallery devoted to exploring recent human spaceflight during the space station and space shuttle eras, as well as to contemplating future spaceflight possibilities.  "Moving Beyond Earth" includes artifacts such as space suits and astronaut gear; models including a 12' tall space shuttle replica; and interactive components that allow visitors to experience various aspects of spaceflight such as serving as mission control's flight director, equipping a module for use on the space station, manipulating and assembling space station elements, and exploring the Moon and Mars.

The Office of Exhibits Central (OEC) collaborated with the museum on one of the key components in the gallery–a presentation stage intended to be used for live events and broadcasts, as well as for the "Space Flight Academy" quiz game which tests visitors' flight readiness.  The stage was an exciting challenge for the OEC team, which took NASM's original design concept, and turned it into a three-dimensional structure.

MBE 1final CAD

CAD drawing prepared by OEC model makers, Vincent Rossi and Adam Metallo 


The first step in the production of the stage was for OEC model makers, Vincent Rossi and Adam Metallo, to create a drawing using Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software, which reflected the size and profile parameters that NASM had provided to the team.  Rossi, who served as OEC's project leader, explained the importance of the CAD drawings.  "I knew that everyone would be building from the drawings," he said, "and so I wanted to ensure that they were as accurate as possible.  The CAD drawings allowed for precision in all components.  We were working within a limited time-frame, with little room for error, and it was essential that each element was completed to an especially high standard.  Also, the CAD drawings allowed us to see how the finished structure would look inside the gallery."

Once the drawings were completed and approved by the museum, discussions took place to determine what types of materials would work best for the interior framework and outer skin of the stage.  Because it needed to support equipment, as well as people during live presentations, the stage had to pass stringent Smithsonian life/safety reviews, including receiving engineering and materials approvals from the review board.  Square 3/8" steel tubing was selected as the best material for the frame, since it was structurally sound, as well as relatively easy to work with. 

The team cut the steel–which came in 20' lengths–to the desired sizes with a band saw according to the CAD drawings, and carefully labeled the pieces so that they would know exactly where each custom-made segment belonged.  The steel tubing for the curved perimeter of the frame was sent to an outside contractor, who was able to bend it to the correct degree of curvature in order to get the round shape for the stage that was specified in the CAD drawings.  The OEC team then cut the curved tubing to size, as well, and labeled the pieces.

MBE 2 final frame at OEC

View of the steel framework at OEC


The CAD drawings called for the steel frame to be supported by fifteen posts, which were also custom made at OEC.  The posts were fitted with interior plates that could slide up and down threaded rods which were to be secured to the museum's floor.  The posts could be adjusted for height by moving the plates up or down the threaded rods, and clamping them with nuts; the rods, in essence, acted as adjustable stilts.  The several posts which supported the curved perimeter were also reinforced in their interiors with metal angles: in one post, the steel angle ran from the lower left corner to the upper right corner, and in the next post, the angle ran from the upper left corner to the lower right corner.

Because the stage was designed so that its outer skin would be made up of fixed panels, as well as movable panels that could swing open as doors, complex hinges had to be attached to four of the perimeter posts to accommodate the doors, which Rossi and Metallo developed and fabricated at OEC.  The doors were intended to provide access to the open storage space beneath the stage, as well as to the electrical components needed to power the stage's interactive and audio/visual equipment.

MBE 3 final hinge

Door hinge


In the meantime, OEC model maker, Jon Zastrow, created a full-size template out of medium density fiberboard (MDF) which was set up on the floor so that the team could use it as an outline onto which they could arrange all of the post and frame "puzzle pieces" in order to double check the accuracy of the cut list before welding began.  After the pieces were assembled in place, they were welded together in three sections so that the framework would be manageable to work with; the sections were then painted with a rust-colored primer to seal the metal surface.

Once the interior steel framework was underway, Rossi focused on the type of material that would work best for the outer skin of the stage, suggesting that fiberglass might be a good choice, with which NASM concurred.  He located a firm that was able to produce large-scale structures, and he and the project administrator, George Quist, worked with the company to finalize the details.  "The firm was able to mold to very tight tolerances," Quist noted, "which is exactly what we needed for the project." 

The company first created a full-scale mold based on the computer drawings; the mold was divided into eight panels, four of which (every other one) were designed to be the hinged doors.  Next, the firm delivered the mold to a specialist who began the casting process by covering the interior of the mold with a gel coat.  A chop gun was used to spray a fiberglass and fire-retardant resin mixture into the mold to reach a depth of 1/4".  Rectangular-shaped steel reinforcements (illustrated in green on the CAD drawing) were embedded into the fiberglass panels to increase their structural integrity, and to provide a point of attachment for the door hinges.  Lastly, silver-colored acrylic polyurethane was applied as a finish coat on the outside of the fiberglass, giving the stage's skin a space-age appearance.

The team requested that one of the finished fiberglass door panels be delivered to OEC, in advance, so that it could be tested before the others were cast, to make sure that it would accurately fit the steel frame, and that the hinges on the posts could be connected to the embedded metal reinforcements inside the fiberglass, as planned.  Once the posts, hinges, frame, and fiberglass panels were complete, all of the pieces were delivered to NASM for the assembly of the stage.

OEC model makers, Danny Fielding and Natalie Gallelli, started the installation by drilling small holes in the floor of the museum to accommodate the threaded rods on which the posts were to be affixed, and then slipped the posts onto their rods.  Since the floor of the museum was not level, a laser level was used to adjust the posts; Fielding and Gallelli moved the posts up or down the rods until they were positioned correctly.  (The laser level is a portable light source that emits multiple beams of light simultaneously which serve to mark a pre-set height.)  According to Fielding, "The individual pieces were so precisely cut and welded, that leveling the posts went very smoothly.  We spent a great deal of preparation time in the OEC shop measuring, prototyping, and testing so that we would not run into any complications on site.  Additionally, we assembled the entire structure at OEC to ensure that all of the components worked together as we had anticipated they would."

MBE 4 final frame at NASM

View of the steel framework installed in the exhibit gallery at NASM


A platform, constructed by Jon Zastrow of fire-rated, medium density fiberboard, was then bolted to the top of the metal frame by Fielding and Gallelli.  The next phase of the installation was to attach the fiberglass panels to the steel framework.  During the design phase, Rossi and Metallo had built in flexibility wherever there were unknowns.  "By factoring in a degree of adjustability," Metallo said, "we could account for variation or anything that came in above the anticipated tolerance level.  The door hinges, for example, were adjustable up to approximately 2", which allowed the doors to move up, down, left, or right, in any direction, so that we would be able to install them correctly."

MBE 5 final attaching wall 96

Vincent Rossi (left) and Adam Metallo (right) attach a fiberglass panel to the steel framework


MBE 6 final under platform 80

Adam Metallo (left) and Natalie Gallelli (right) adjust a post


Rossi and Metallo utilized laptops on site at NASM to access their CAD drawings, making the process virtually paperless.  It was unnecessary for them to print out full-scale blueprints at any point in the process, and Rossi was able to continually update the drawings, as adjustments were made in the design.

MBE 7 final team 29

Adam Metallo (left background) and Vincent Rossi (right background) consult the computer drawings while Natalie Gallelli (left foreground) and Danny Fielding (right foreground) adjust a post


MBE 8 final stage final

View of the assembled stage


For special events, NASM's original design concept called for accessories that could be used with the structure, including stairs and elevators.  Rossi was able to locate three companies that provided the needed equipment: the first firm, which specialized in building custom-made staircases, fabricated removable stairs for the project, equipped with a built-in handrail to allow visitors and staff to ascend the stage; the second, an elevator manufacturer, was able to construct an appropriately-sized lift that operated without flammable oils, and could be permanently attached to the stage to lift materials onto it; and the third was an elevator manufacturer that carried specially-designed equipment which met Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, and provided a removable elevator to facilitate wheel-chair access.

The final phase of the installation was the attachment of the lighted interactives along the rim of the stage, which were prototyped and fabricated by OEC model maker, Chris Hollshwander, based on NASM's designs; NASM positioned and connected the electrical work.  Visitors can watch the outcome of their game playing on free-standing, large-screen monitors which sit on top of the stage when the structure is not being used for special events.  NASM then covered the MDF platform with carpeting, and special exhibit lighting was focused on the stage and the other exhibit components in this very dynamic gallery.

MBE 9 final heads 19

Danny Fielding (left) and Adam Metallo (right) check the rim of the stage where the interactive lights and buttons will be attached


In addition to the model shop team, OEC painter, Walter Skinner, detailer, Stoy Popovich, and graphic specialist, Theresa Keefe, contributed their expertise to the successful completion of the stage.  As project administrator, Quist, said, "It was quite exciting and gratifying to watch the structure evolve from the CAD drawings to a functioning stage.  The OEC model shop team solved a number of complex design and fabrication issues, and conducted a great deal of interesting materials research.  Moreover, the team was able to perfectly mesh what they fabricated in-house with the work produced by the many disparate outside contracters, including the cast fiberglass panels and doors for the outer skin, and the staircase and elevators.  The accuracy of all of the work was very impressive."

The OEC team credits NASM's chief of design, Frank Florentine, for helping to make the project a success.  His support throughout the design and fabrication phases was invaluable, and his commitment to quality ensured that "Moving Beyond Earth" will be one of the museum's most popular exhibit galleries.

MBE 10 gallery

View of the completed stage in "Moving Beyond Earth"


photo credits:

   photo 1:  Vincent Rossi and Adam Metallo

   photo 2:  Editor

   photo 3:  Adam Metallo

   photo 4:  Adam Metallo

   photo 5:  Courtesy NASM; Eric Long, photographer

   photo 6:  Courtesy NASM; Eric Long, photographer

   photo 7:  Courtesy NASM; Eric Long, photographer

   photo 8:  Editor

   photo 9:  Courtesy NASM; Eric Long, photographer

   photo 10: Editor